On ESPN, Euro 2008, and the EPL

So, with Euro 2008 at an end, I will leave the in-depth tactical analysis of why Spain won over Germany to others better equipped to do so such as career winners losers Steve McClaren, Graham Taylor, and especially this guy,^ who propelled himself to a career of punditry on a bed of boring cliches that are only slightly better informed than Marcelo Balboa’s. So instead, I want to comment on ESPN’s coverage of Euro 2008 and what this bodes for the future.

First of all, let me just get out of the way that I think ESPN’s coverage of the tournament was simply outstanding and the best I have seen for a World Cup or European Championships that I can remember.* Andy Gray was simply a revelation, showing how much better he is than not only our American commentators but how much better he is than your average EPL-feed commentator like Robbie Earle or the intolerable David Pleat. It’s so rare when you learn something watching your average soccer broadcast, but with Andy Gray (and BBC’s Alan Hansen) you actually learn something new or notice something you otherwise would have ever seen. While Tommy Smyth is entertaining, and continued to be that way during Euro 2008, you won’t ever learn anything from him other than who’s a good pick in next year’s Irish Derby.

I thought Adrian Healey and Derek Rae did their usual top-level job on play-by-play, though here, I really do wish JP Dellacamera was involved because he is absolutely just as good as either Rae or Healey, and when an American of that quality is available for ESPN, I wish they could take advantage of him. With color guys and pundits, there isn’t currently an American around as good as Gray or as entertaining as Smyth (especially with Garth Lagerwey running RSL now) so I have less of a beef with an all-foreigner lineup in that position. In that way, I agree with Jack Bell who said much the same. That said, regarding color guys, I could not agree more with EPL Talk’s position that Bell is totally and completely wrong. Shep Messing or John Harkes would not have added anything positive to these broadcasts. Messing has exactly ZERO matches of international experience, and while Harkes does have the experience, he is a totally inane commentator. I couldn’t say it much better than EPL Talk when it says:

Bell should realize that American commentators need to improve their work so they can compete against people such as Adrian Healey, Tommy Smyth, Rae and Gray. Would Bell and Lalas be more satisfied if we brought back Marcelo Balboa and Dave O’Brien? Both of them were an abomination in World Cup 2006. And do they realize how many American viewers ESPN and ABC lost because they switched to the Spanish language network Univision for better commentary?

That’s exactly right. It’s up to American broadcasters to get better at doing this game, not get it awarded to them based on accent. That there is a grand total of one really top-rate American commentator (Dellacamera), one fairly close but too busy with assignments as it is (Dave Johnson) and two that are very knowledgeable, but so annoying as to make people shoot guns at their TV sets (that means you Bretos and Wheelock) is a disservice to soccer fans but one that only young up-and-coming broadcasters can fix by getting better and getting hired.

But aside from the broadcasters themselves, ESPN succeeded with Euro 2008 by letting the sport and the images speak for themselves. What few gimmicks ESPN used were peripheral and either entertaining or even insightful. I like the Rolling Stones, so the occasional Stones interlude never bothered me. I thought that 3D, rotate-the-field gizmo was useful and I was glad to see it in use again today during the DC-LA match. We didn’t see too much leaning on overwrought storylines either. We didn’t see any celebrity nonsense. All we saw was tons of great soccer put out on television in HD designed for the reasonably knowledgeable fan. It reminded me of what ESPN does with its baseball broadcasts. It lets the baseball do the talking. Finally, after so much gimmick and and nonsense, that’s what ESPN did here. We didn’t even have to deal with stupid statistics, screwball graphics, and unprepared meatheads like Marcelo Balboa and Dave Dir calling a certain Swedish midfielder Freddie Luxembourg.%

Which brings me to the rumor of the month, which is that ESPN wants to make a big play at getting the US rights to the English Premier League, presumably stealing them away from Fox Soccer Channel and possibly putting them a rebranded ESPN Classic channel. Ives seems pretty confident it will happen, EPL Talk is excited about it, and Eric of OWO wants it happen pretty badly. I am waiting to see them do so before I believe it. The EPL and Newscorp have had a very long happy relationship both in the UK and US, and I don’t see Scudamore et al blithely handing the rights over to ESPN with Newscorp putting up a big fight.

My biggest worry is that if FSC did lose the EPL, would it be able to exist with programming headlined by MLS, Serie A, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and other random reasonably priced bits of soccer it gets its hands on? I don’t know the answer to that.

One thing I do know the answer to is that ESPN proved it could conceivably broadcast the EPL very well if it got the rights. Euro 2008 proves the network at least has the ability to do so, while not guaranteeing it would. For ESPN, that is a big step.

^ If you are wondering how it is that I, living in Virginia, can comment on programs broadcast on the BBC in the UK, the keyword is bittorrent. That word will make you as a soccer fan very, very happy.

* Aaron making you feel old moment No. 1, these memories only begin with very, very hazy memories of World Cup 1990 and really only come into focus in 1994 and 1996.

& And yes, Dir did actually call him that during a studio show for the 2002 World Cup, though in his defense, it may have been 3 a.m. when he did so.

4 thoughts on “On ESPN, Euro 2008, and the EPL

  1. Since you mentioned Dave Johnson as a solid pbp commentator, I’d also like to commend to you Kenn Tomasch. Despite my really disliking the Fire, I’ve generally found his broadcasts not only professional, polished and competent, but fair too. That said, it’s been over a year since the last time I heard him, so maybe things have changed.

  2. Ah, well then, that may be why I haven’t heard him in a while

    (now hunting for “embarassed” emoticon . . .)

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